A bill/payment statement with a check book

If you can't afford your medical bills, haggling and crowdfunding are worth a try. (iStockPhoto)

If you’re financially savvy, you probably know a thing or two about saving on health care. You know how to use your insurance wisely, about checking around for treatments and how preventive care saves money. What you may not know, however, is that you can save money even after you get a bill for medical services.

Unpaid medical bills often end up scarring your credit report, which can then impact your finances down the road. It can affect your ability to take out a mortgage, buy a car or rent an apartment – even getting a job can be difficult with bad credit. 

No, it’s not fair that an unplanned medical incident impacts your credit similarly to an unpaid credit card bill. After all, you didn’t ask to get sick or injured, and you may not have the money for it. Just the same, that bill can haunt you if you don’t take action. Here’s how to take care of it even if you can’t afford it. 

Error Check 

A surprisingly large proportion of medical bills contain clerical errors that result in overcharges – anywhere from 50 to 80 percent – depending on who you ask. A recent NerdWallet analysis found that 49 percent of Medicare claims had errors, while medical billing advocates will tell you 80 percent of the claims they analyze have errors.  

A medical billing advocate looks for errors on bills, then acts on behalf of the patient to lower them. Most people don’t use an advocate unless a medical bill is very high, which usually happens after a long or complicated treatment. Still, the lesson is clear: more services, more errors. 

If you look over your medical bill and find you’ve been erroneously charged, you can probably call and have it corrected. “Most patients are intimidated when I first mention auditing a bill, but patients are ultimately responsible to make sure the billing is correct,” says Claire Freeman, lead counselor of Compass Co-Pay, a division of Quality First Medical Billing, Inc. 

It helps to have copies of your own medical records and the explanation of benefits from your insurance company to check against the bill. “Medical records are the only relied on documentation of what actually occurred between the health care provider and patient,” Freeman says.

Some errors aren’t so easy to spot. If you’ve got a confusing bill you’d like to check and don’t know how, this handy guide will help you get started. 

Haggle Persistently 

Most people don’t know that medical bills are negotiable, not only through the hospital or doctor’s office, but through your health insurer as well. Working with the insurer may take a little more effort than simply persuading the billing manager to correct errors, but it will likely be worth the effort. 

Make sure you’re talking to the right person, like a medical billing manager. “If you are talking to someone who is sympathetic but unable to fix your errors or negotiate a discount, you are wasting your time,” says Maureen Lamb, medical billing advocate and president of Medical Bill Support, LLC. 

But don’t give up. “[It] may require unique approaches to break though the resistance,” Lamb says. “When phone calls, faxes and emails don’t work, it’s time to write a letter documenting your request for a discounted bill, and request help from the management team of an organization.” 

If your charges from a recent medical visit seem extreme, find a fair price for your procedure online. If you were charged more than the average or fair price, ask whether the hospital will lower the charge for you

“When you do finalize a settlement offer from your provider or hospital, make sure you get a copy of the agreement in writing,” Lamb advises. 


The process of gathering small donations from many people to support a single cause – known as crowdfunding – is increasingly popular. Everything from charitable foundations to business startups are getting funded one small donation at a time, and that includes medical bills. Some crowdfunding websites are even tailored exclusively to medical bill campaigns.

To get started, browse crowdfunding websites and check out their fees. Most charge a small percentage of donations to keep the site running, but some allow donors to cover that. Once you’ve found one, you can set a goal amount and start a campaign page. The crowdfunding website will help you set up your campaign, and some, like GiveForward, will even help promote it on social media. 

Don’t skip that step, either. The most successful crowdfunding platforms have a strong social media presence and are shared virally. Once your campaign is up and running, you’ll want to share it on Facebook, Twitter and any other social media platforms you participate in.  

Get Assistance 

If you have a low income or are experiencing financial hardship due to your medical problem, you may qualify for assistance. Most hospitals and medical centers offer assistance of their own; the customer help desk will have information. They might also be able to point you to other assistance. There’s also this guide to obtaining medical bill assistance available for free. 

If you don’t qualify for assistance through your hospital, some charities may be able to lend a hand. If you're a person of faith, ask the leader of your local congregation about charitable assistance for members. State and local governments also often have assistance programs set up for those who qualify. Your local Elks or Lions Clubs chapters may also offer payment assistance for medical bills.

Tags: health, patients, patient safety, doctors, health care, patient advice, personal finance

Lacie Glover is a writer for NerdWallet Health. You can follow her on Twitter @LacieJaeGlo, connect with her on LinkedIn or circle her on Google+.

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